Fears that Billy Elliot - The Musical may have dated in the six years since it first tapped onto the Victoria Palace stage can be set aside. As the cast blew out the candles on their Maggie Thatcher-themed cake, their show was looking, if anything, more relevant than ever.
Billy’s journey from doomed Durham mining town to the hallowed halls of the Royal Ballet School has gained pathos in the current political climate of cuts and protest. And while Elton John’s songs are not as memorable as they should be, his nostalgic riffs on Northern folk music, coupled with Lee Hall’s simple, honest lyrics, movingly give voice to a community that knows its days are numbered.
What really sticks with you though is the dancing. Like Billy, the show lives or dies by it, and Peter Darling’s choreography still hits the spot six years on, from the proud spirit of the ensemble numbers to the cathartic beauty of Billy’s solos. Dean Charles Chapman may be Billy No. 23 but this talented 13-year-old has the audience on its feet for a full five minutes after his startling audition scene, "Electricity", as if singing these lyrics and dancing these steps for the very first time.
And as the company segue effortlessly from the broad slapstick of Mrs Wilkinson’s young ballet class in "Shine" to "We’d Go Dancing", a duet between Grandma and the entire male ensemble, it’s hard not to feel an odd sort of patriotism, that really this is what we British do best. Long may it continue.
- Nancy Groves
Please Note: This FIVE STAR review is from the production's opening night at the Victoria Palace Theatre on 11 May 2005.
There’s a warning posted at the box office that Billy Elliot contains strong language. They could add that it also features even stronger emotion and raw feeling, not to mention the kind of captivating performances, amazing dancing and terrific melodies that will have you reaching not just for superlatives but also for your handkerchief, to wipe away tears of pure joy, sadness and excitement.
It took exactly forty years to bring Mary Poppins from the screen to the stage; Billy Elliot has now followed the same path in just five. Part of the reason for such a quick crossover is the retention of many of the 2000 film’s creative team, including director Stephen Daldry, writer Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling, who, newly joined by Elton John to provide the score, have re-visited the material to both deepen it but also to thrillingly give it the kind of vibrant immediacy that you can only get in the theatre.
For it has to put in front of us a real kid in the title role of the 11-year-old Durham coalminer’s son whose tender and uplifting rites of passage the story follows as he makes a surprise discovery of the joys of dancing one day when he stays behind in the village hall after his boxing class and ends up taking part in a girls’ ballet lesson. The boy playing Billy has to not only lead but also sustain a nearly three-hour show in which he’s hardly ever off the stage, execute some astonishing dance routines, sing and act. Never has the so-called “triple threat” of a musical performer’s armoury of talent been so mercilessly demanded of a child actor.
Inevitably, therefore, my account is only a partial review of the show. Of the three original Billy’s who share the role, I have only seen one: 12-year-old Liam Mower, who – like Billy aspires to in the show – has recently secured a place at the Royal Ballet School. Mower is an utter revelation, superbly charting the character’s journey from the tentative vulnerability of his damaged family life to the liberating confidence that he finds in performance.
But then the show also beautifully marries Billy’s fairytale journey with a gritty social realism as it’s played out against the background of the Miners’ Strike of 1984. Not since Blood Brothers first opened in 1983, in fact, has there been a new British musical that has combined a commentary on working class life in Thatcher’s Britain with a searing story of the growing pains of youth quite so powerfully or melodically.
Though I’ve lingered on the titular casting, I should add that there are tremendous contributions from fellow child actors Ryan Longbottom as his best friend Michael and Lucy Stephenson as Debbie on press night. In the adult roles, Haydn Gwynne is a tall, brassy delight as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson and Tim Healy movingly charts Billy’s father’s journey from resistance to pride at his son’s dancing talent.
It’s impossible not to surrender to the joy of this most physical of the expressive arts. Especially not when Peter Darling so adeptly and vibrantly puts the very spirit of dance to the test by threading movement throughout; the result is quite possibly the greatest modern dance musical since A Chorus Line.